On Food and Education: Rich Shih

For our five-question series on food and education at The Common Table, we ask experts about their strategies and practices for a healthier relationship with food. Here: koji and fermentation expert and co-founder of the Kojicon conference Rich Shih talks about teaching people how to access their lost knowledge of food fermentation.

The Common Table: How would you explain your perception of food as an educational discipline or tool to someone who might think that means just cookery lessons?

Rich Shih: Food has never been just about cooking. Food is essential for human beings to grow and function yet most of the population is allowing an industry that only cares about profit to dictate what they eat. Knowing exactly where your food comes from and how it’s produced empowers you to make better choices. When you have the opportunity to meet, support and learn from all the farmers, makers, craftspeople and producers who really care, you become part of a community that nurtures each other and grows together. That’s the core of real food education. I just happen to be sharing the fermentation/preservation part of it. 

When you have the opportunity to meet, support and learn from all the farmers, makers, craftspeople and producers who really care, you become part of a community that nurtures each other and grows together. That’s the core of real food education.

Fermentation used to be (and still is for many) a big part of daily life, especially before refrigeration, to preserve food with the least amount of energy, so you had the best chance to survive in times of food inaccessibility – in winter, for example. Fermentation was something you’d do in your home as part of processing what you harvested through foraging, hunting and farming into products that needed to be kept for eating at a later date. 

One can argue that fermentation/preservation know-how is just as important as knowing how to keep yourself warm with a form of shelter. This knowledge was passed on through elders who would train the next generation to have this skill set down pat by the time they were unable to do it. 

The Common Table: What are you doing/have you done to change understanding related to food?

Rich Shih: I have been educating people about how food was preserved by our ancestors prior to refrigeration for several years now. I teach workshops, consult with chefs and food makers from all over the world, organise a yearly conference focused on mould-based fermentation, and encourage people to share knowledge and explore fermentation methods on social media (specifically Instagram). I also share my ferments widely so people can taste how wonderful making their own condiments, umami sauces and drinks can be. That can create a connection to something that they may have had in the past made by an elder and starts a conversation that leads to the path of “hows” and “whys”. 

My primary focus is fermentation because the process is very efficient. It requires few resources and little labour to make nutritious and delicious food. The entire human race would not have survived without fermentation and it is shocking to think that most people have no clue how all-encompassing fermentation is. 

The entire human race would not have survived without fermentation and it is shocking to think that most people have no clue how all-encompassing fermentation is. 

Generally, those with the benefit of having a refrigerator and access to a modern grocery store have no idea that they are already eating fermented foods. For example, soy sauce and vinegar are common ingredients in prepackaged marinades, sauces, condiments, salad dressings, prepared foods, etc. The list goes on. The kicker is that most people have no idea that soy sauce is made with a magical mould, which grows on grains called Aspergillus oryzae and that it is all part of the same story. 

I am noticing a greater awareness about fermentation in the general conversation, in the media and what’s become available in stores and markets. By continuing to share this knowledge, the associated practices and understanding, the hope is that our collective effort will eventually lead to greater food sovereignty. 

Fermentation empowers us to understand our food and where it comes from.

Fermentation empowers us to understand our food and where it comes from. The beauty of making these delicious things is that it gets people to ask those questions about who is growing their vegetables. Why does someone else’s ferment taste better? What went wrong with this batch? And so on. It eventually becomes part of a regular practice. You develop a symbiotic relationship with microbes that predigest your food to make it more nutritionally available for you. 

The Common Table: Who are you trying to reach and teach and why?

Rich Shih: Everyone and anyone willing to open their minds to the possibilities beyond their own understanding of food. Every single person has to eat and their enjoyment is primarily based on their upbringing and access. We all love and hate certain things, but there’s someone out there who prefers the complete opposite. People need to see that it doesn’t make each other weird or wrong. What every single person eats has validity and I’m trying to make more people see that. 

What every single person eats has validity and I’m trying to make more people see that. 

The hook is the deep and complex flavours fermentation creates with a relatively low input of physical labour over any cooking technique. In practice, I don’t tie myself to ingredients dictated by a recipe. I utilise what I have at the moment and apply the methodology to create new and interesting flavours for myself and whoever I share them with. The beauty of fermentation is that every culture has its own makes, so the fundamental flavours that result from specific microbial conversions have specific key flavour notes. For example, the acidity of kimchi and sauerkraut are both produced primarily by strains of lactobacillus. With that flavour relationship, it’s very easy to come to the common understanding that the inputs are just a matter of which ingredients you happen to have, which recipe you use or a specific time and place. 

The Common Table: Where would you like to take your work in this field; what are your goals?

Rich Shih: There is enough food produced in the world to feed every single person. The current focus is to provide food for those who are having trouble getting access, for whatever reason, by creating simple resource centres. These would be pods of warehouse space containing the bare essentials needed for fermentation. In terms of ingredients, all we need are vegetables and salt. These can be fairly easily acquired by gathering excess food that cannot be sold from farms, wholesalers, retailers, etc. The only equipment we’d need is vessels (which can be as simple as food-safe buckets) for the ferments, a consistent environment to store the products and running water. These simple things are all our ancestors needed to prepare and preserve food safely. 

The Common Table: What is the big-picture perspective in terms of the future of food education and where is it coming from?

Rich Shih: To ultimately get people to see everything that goes into making their food. Open their eyes to what and who the huge conglomerates are compromising to produce food at such high volumes. Make them see that even though the monetary cost at the cash register is low, there is a high cost to their health, the environment, the labourers producing it, etc. 

Once more people understand that they can choose better options, they can force the powers that be to shift their priorities.

It’s all about real food. The flavours we tend to seek out, sweet and savoury, are our indicators of nutrition. The capitalist food industry has manipulated processed food to have these components without the nutritional component, so we’ll eat and buy more and more, as our bodies try to fill that gap, and feed their profit margins instead. The industrial food conglomerates are driven by money and power. That’s not who you want to be in charge of your nutrition and wellbeing. Once more people understand that they can choose better options, they can force the powers that be to shift their priorities.

Rich Shih, aka Jean Dough, co-author of Koji Alchemy, founder of Our Cook Quest, and co-founder of the Kojicon conferences is one of the key culinary explorers of mould-based fermentation in the United States. As a food preservation consultant, he helps chefs, cooks and artisans build their larders and leverage fermentation to decrease waste. He welcomes makers of all experience levels to learn, share knowledge, and exchange ideas through educational workshops and social media. In his spare time, Rich collaborates with friends to find ways to help people realise their passions and become fulfilled on the journey of life.

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